Dear followers …

May 26, 2018

I am delighted that you think enough of my posts to follow what I post on this blog.

I’m hoping we can agree that as you have chosen to entrust me with the small amount of personal information that enables you to receive notification about new posts here that this is sufficient for me to be in compliance with the new GDPR legislation.

If you disagree, you have only to unfollow.

Right – boring business out of the way. Here’s a picture I took at West Bay recently.

Much more fun 🙂                                                                                                                                 100_4802


Ice cold and free!

July 12, 2019

Just to let you know that my first collection of prizewinning short fiction is FREE on Kindle from  tomorrow, Saturday 13 July 2019, until next Wednesday, inclusive.

Link to AmazonUK here:

Link to AmazonUS here:

A few words of review on any of The Zons or their subsidiary Goodreads will be warmly appreciated.

‘Eva Jelinek’ by T J Spears

July 2, 2019

Eva Jelinek (The Nat Hopper Series Book 1) by [Spears, T.J]

Yee haw! I used to love westerns when I was younger (about 50 years ago) and often regret the need to abandon the genre because of how dated most of them read now, with the evil Indians attacking wagon trains and men being manly and women called Miss Kitty bandaging them up and making them hearty meals. So I was as happy as a bug in a bed roll to discover this.

The narrative voice is pleasantly curmudgeonly. Ned Hopper is supposedly an old man writing down his memories of his life during and after the American Civil War. He has a damned good memory, and one is reminded of this teensy flaw in the process every time the writing of the memoirs is jerked back to its ‘present’ by interaction between Hopper and his amanuensis at the end of each chapter. He also frames a darned fine, episodic story.

Hopper lived through extraordinarily interesting times, of course: the war, buffalo skinning, homesteading, travelling west to California with Mormons, experiencing those inevitable gun fights, and various sicknesses some of them marvellously ameliorated by a medicine which is mainly opium and alcohol.

Hopper appears to have very few of the prejudices that a modern reader would associate with his time. He is an observer – he sees the woes visited upon north America by its settlers, by them upon each other, and by them on Native Americans. (He largely leaves slavery and its aftermath out of the story.) He reports even-handedly, somewhat like an ancient Huck Finn. He does what he can, in his homespun philosopher’s way, to avert bloodshed and mistreatment, sometimes with greater success than others.

Through the book is threaded Eva Jelinek – a woman Ned Hopper keeps finding and losing. She is a very smart cookie, a hustler, perhaps a whore, adept at making herself scarce whenever there is a danger of her being forced into that Miss Kitty role. Although she can treat a wound, she can also inflict one.

And so Ned Hopper makes his way across the U S of A, gathering  and losing companions as he goes, having wonderful adventures. And every so often he runs across Eva Jelinek.

The Amazon blurb says “If you enjoy intelligent historical fiction with an unusual twist ‘Eva Jelinek’ will not disappoint.” I agree entirely with that assessment. I enjoyed the book very much.

It was just as well it was so engaging, because it was as spattered with frustrating little typos as an Appaloosa is spattered with spots. My e-book is a couple of years old; I hope Spears has fixed these niggles since I acquired my copy. In an electronic book such infelicities are easy enough to fix.

‘Fear the wolf’ by Andrew Butcher

June 28, 2019

Fear the Wolf by [Butcher, Andrew]

** Review originally prepared for ‘Big Al & Pals’. Received a complimentary review file **

Genre: Fantasy

Description: Amazon’s blurb says, “Fear the Wolf is an adult fantasy thriller set in a mysterious world that was torn apart by a great cataclysm. Follow Senla on her treacherous journey as she overcomes her greatest fears and learns to accept herself in a world that’s always trying to tell her who and what she should be.”

Author: when I wrote this review the author was given as S J Sparrows. Now it is given as Andrew Butcher. It is definitely the same book. There is a short writing biography of Butcher on The Zons which reads “Butcher wrote and released his first novel, A Death Displaced, at the age of twenty-one. Since then, he has written more books in the same series and has branched out into writing nonfiction and teaching creative writing online. Over 5,000 students have enrolled in his highly rated course ‘Write a Novel Outline from Scratch’, and his books have often hit the #1 spot for their categories on Amazon and other online retailers. The fiction genres he writes in are a mix of paranormal fantasy, paranormal mystery, urban fantasy, ghost stories, and paranormal suspense.”

Appraisal: This is an interesting book which has much to say about the times we are living in as well as telling an exciting story which gathers pace as it unfolds.

There is a prologue in which people we have not yet been introduced to chase an enormous white wolf. This is doubtless to get a bit of action in early. The book proper is quite slow to get going. It paints its early pictures in muted colours – the colours of the village. We learn that the village lives in fear of anyone who ‘presumes too much’ and brings the wrath of the wolf down on the whole community. The ideal is to be unexceptional. Outside the village are nomads who roam and trade. They are sometimes free spirits, sometimes wild and violent. Nobody is well educated.

There is an element of stereotyping, one might think, in the diametrically opposed communities – the villagers living on the edge of the wildwood, the nomads within and criss-crossing it. Dangerous animals live in the forest: night-apes, foxes, wolflings, and the great white wolf. There is also a sickness for which there is no cure. All this goes to encourage the villagers to stay quietly in their own place.

You might think, then, that this sounds like a novel of stereotypes. And in a way you’d be right. But this is a novel which only came out in April of 2019 and it has the zeitgeist firmly in its teeth – the polarisation of communities in both the US and here in the UK (Brexit! Aaargh!), the diminution of personal liberty in a search for greater security, the loss of excellence in a quest for conformity, suspicion and fear of ‘the other’ – the incomer who is not ‘us’. It wears its political allegories lightly but they are definitely there in Butcher’s examination of “the most basic human fears and insecurities”.

The main protagonist is Senla. She has been rebelling against her dreary life since she was a small child. She is the grief of her mother who is always sharp with her. Senla’s mother is a deeply unhappy woman who, along with the rest of the village finds Senla ‘presumes too much’. However, Senla, we learn, is an exceptional person, forged in adversity. How will the village deal with her? How does that Prologue fit into what is to come?

There were some minor frustrations for this reader. The first was a mention in the blurb of this novel being set in “a mysterious world that was torn apart by a great cataclysm”. This cataclysm is occasionally mentioned. But no reason for it, or result from it is ever offered. Checkov reckoned that (in fiction) if a gun was seen to be hanging over the fireplace in the first act of the story, then it needed to be fired in the third. The ‘cataclysm’ gun is still hanging over the fireplace, and the story is finished.

A second frustration was that every time Senla exerted herself we were given a litany of every scratch, wound, sore, and ache – all of which would promptly be forgotten next time she needed to run or fight. The listings often started during action sequences, slowing them down. I learned to skip past them: you may wish to do the same. And a third was an authorial fondness for the phrase ‘off of’ which exists nowhere in the English language.

Do let me mention that one of the threads of this book hangs on a comma! Yes, that itsy bitsy grammatical mark. I can’t say more because of spoilers – but I hope you enjoy that powerful little comma as much as I did when you come to it.

With the change of author name there may have been some authorial revisions. I have not checked. However, I understand the ‘off ofs’ are no more. Huzzah.



Review: ‘Rivers Run: Elemental Keys Book 1’, by Lynne Cantwell

June 26, 2019

Rivers Run: Elemental Keys Book 1 by [Cantwell, Lynne]

** Review originally prepared for ‘Big Al and Pals’ **

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Description: Raney Meadows is an actor in a long-running TV series. It has all become a bit much for her, so she takes a leave of absence to hike part of the Appalachian Trail and clear her mind. Unfortunately, on the Trail near Harper’s Ferry, she finds a body in the River Shenandoah. But the victim did not drown. How does she know this? She is half Undine – a water Elemental. The goddess Shenandoah exhorts her to cleanse the river waters of this violent death. The plot quickly thickens. Three more half-elementals make themselves known – earth, fire and air. That seems like a quorum … and, indeed, they have been brought together to prevent a great and ancient evil re-emerging.

Author: Lynne Cantwell has been writing fantasy fiction since the second grade, when she made a picture book, illustrated by the author, about a girl who owned a doll that not only could talk, but could carry on conversations. The book had dialogue but no paragraph breaks. After a twenty-year career in broadcast journalism and a master’s degree in fiction writing from Johns Hopkins University (or, she says, perhaps despite the master’s degree), Lynne is still writing fantasy. She is also a contributing guru at Indies Unlimited.

Appraisal: I should nail my colours to the mast at the outset here – I love Cantwell’s work. I even love her romance, despite my lifelong aversion to the soppy kissing genre. Her Goldilocks writing style provides everything the reader needs to know and keeps the pages turning, turning, turning. It is her liberal use of what Cantwell refers to as ‘the woo-woo’ that sets her fiction apart and endears it to this reader. What is the woo-woo? A frisson of magic and spiritism that is always at the heart of Cantwell’s work. Sometimes – as with her ‘Pipe Woman Chronicles’ – there are whole pantheons of deities in play. Other times as with the standalone Seasons of the Fool and this first book in her latest series, the fey aspects are essential but more lightly couched.

In this book we learn what it is to be part Undine; about Harper’s Ferry and the Appalachian Trail; the other Elementals are introduced and developed, and the first part of the plot is brought to a satisfying conclusion. However, much remains to be resolved as the series unfolds. I look forward!

I happen to know that Cantwell put this out in a bit of a rush, and it does show (in my Kindle edition at least). However, then she lays down a sentence like this, “Her mournful rasp sounded like the barest trickle of moisture in a desert creek bed.” And minor imperfections are quite forgiven.

‘Slow Horses’ by Mick Herron

June 24, 2019

Slow Horses: Jackson Lamb Thriller 1 by [Herron, Mick]

I’ve been meaning to get around to this novel for the longest time. My brother recommended it to me. We are both John Le Carré and Gavin Lyall fans. Since 2015, when this first Jackson Lamb spy thriller came out, Herron has written another five. So that’s now a nice juicy series of six to enjoy.

Of course, Herron is compared to Le Carré. He is, for me, a closer rival than, for example, Charles Cumming (who is regularly spoken of as Le Carré’s inheritor). I’ve read three of Cumming’s and been underwhelmed by each. Sadly, Gavin Lyall (who died in 2003) is not so much remembered now: he wrote some delicious spy thrillers. His later work – a trilogy of novels set in Europe in the years immediately before the first World War – I found both gripping and illuminating.

But back to Herron: he does complexity well and he employs plenty of humour. His point of view is as some kind of insouciant omniscient devil who just wants to watch the world burn: nice.

Slough House (which morphs into the title of this first instalment: Slow Horse(s)) is where they send spies who have seriously stuffed up, but who they don’t want to (or can’t) sack, pay severance to, or have an unfair dismissal hearing for; or who have been stabbed in the back by colleagues. So some of those mouldering in Slough House doing mind-numbing busy work deserve to be there and some do not. It is an interesting part of the game in this first book to try and work out who deserves to be there and who doesn’t.

Slough House is under the surly leadership of Jackson Lamb, who used to be one of the best in the business. He is still a damned good spook. And one of the most convincing slobs I have ever come across in fiction. What can he have done to get stuck in Slough House? Could it be something to do with personal hygiene? It is not revealed in this book. I suspect he is one of those stabbed in the back – although possibly for good reason. The six books together are known as ‘the Jackson Lamb series’ so Lamb is the protagonist who carries the novels. That kind of weight is not really in evidence in this first one. Presumably his substantial and brooding presence is felt more later in the series.

This book sets up the characters of the Slow Horses at length. Another reviewer describes the book as a slow burner and because of all the scene- and character-setting I think this is right. You’ll have to wait until I’ve gotten around to book #2 to see if that continues or whether we plunge straight into plot next time. I have my fingers firmly crossed for less exposition and more turny-twisty plotting. Because the turny-twisty plotting, when it arrives, is very good indeed. The thing that makes this less than a 5* book for me is that most of the good turny-twisty plotting (and the presence of Jackson Lamb) comes in the final quarter of the novel.

‘The Shoe Mender’s Lament and other short stories’ by Peter Ruffell

June 22, 2019

Peter Ruffell’s short foreword tells the reader that these 17 little stories, and the poem which completes the book, started life during writing sessions at Off The Cuff, a writing workshop in Weymouth. The length of these stories reflects that: they’re a little longer (and, thus, meatier) than flash fiction, but short enough to read one while you’re enjoying (say) a mid-morning cup of tea.

Ruffell’s punning alternative title for this collection – ‘Read My Shorts’ – gives a good idea of the sort of work he has collected into this little book. With some notable exceptions, the stories are mainly humourous – even the murders. Ruffell likes to pile misfortune upon mishap until the whole edifice explodes (often with a good twist) under the weight of its own absurdity. In this vein I particularly enjoyed ‘A Short History Lesson’. As a foil for the humour there are several stories in which heart strings are tugged, eg ‘Old Peggy’, ‘Love Story’ and ‘Littlemoor Girl’.

Let us hope for a second volume, now that Ruffell has dipped his toes in the publishing waters.


Review: ‘The Antiquities Dealer: a David Greenberg Mystery, Book 1’ by Ed Protzel

April 19, 2019

Genre: History and Mystery

Description: the Amazon blurb says: “When Miriam Solomon, the love of David Greenberg’s life, phones him at his antiquities gallery in St. Louis, the black hole at the center of his heart shudders. Twenty years earlier, Miriam had inexplicably run off to Israel with his best friend, Solly, a brilliant but nerdy young scientist. Now she tells David that Solly has committed suicide and she needs his aid on a secret research project Solly left unfinished: to acquire the one remaining nail from the crucifixion of Jesus. Is she telling the truth? And why does that nail have such significance?” (One wonders that anyone would need to ask why a nail from the Crucifixion would have significance. But blurbs – even my own – are not strangers to hyperbole …)

Author: The author has lived much of his life in St Louis, which figures largely in this book. He lived for a while in the Gaslight Square area of that city, among its wackier citizens, some of which colourful characters have probably found their way into this book. He writes with authority of students working their way through college by gambling (including playing chess). As well as this novel, he has published the first two parts of his DarkHorse trilogy of novels and the third is due out this year. He spent several years producing screenplays in LA, looking for the big break which never quite came. He has a Master’s degree in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri, St Louis.

Appraisal: This book hits the ground running. David Greenberg, the narrator, is a cultural, urban Jew of the darkly witty and ironical sort. It quickly becomes apparent that he has no self-control where Miriam is concerned, so of course he agrees to help her acquire The Significant Nail. I cannot tell you why she needs it, as that would be a massive spoiler. But trust me when I say the reason is a doozie. As is the McGuffin constructed out of the chess Game of the Century played between Bobby Fischer and Donald Byrne in 1956. There is also (of course) a secret society in Israel which runs its own university, possibly a Second Coming, and a red-neck Christian preacher who is quite happy to use strong arm tactics to meet the potential New Jesus. There is, as you can see, plenty of plot.

There are a few infelicities in said plot. I found these irksome: the twin assassins with identical birthmarks; that people kept attempting to flee to safety in cars which they knew carried tracking devices placed there by their enemies; the ease with which Swiss bank account details were acquired and bandied about. There is an increasing flabbiness as the story approaches its endgame, leading to some implausibilities (a bit of a surprise as this is Protzel’s fourth novel: it makes one wonder what sort of editing is provided by Touchpoint Press). But by that time I was sufficiently intrigued by what was playing out to skip over the less well-focussed bits.

This is the second history and mystery using the Crucifixion story which I have read this year (see also my review of 30 Pieces of Silver by Carolyn McCray). It is fruitful ground for fiction writers. Both novels are thought-provoking and relevant in the twenty-first century. In addition there are inevitable nods to Dan Brown in both books – in the arcana and in the sudden flashes of imaginative and unpleasant violence, although this protagonist is both wittier and more passive than Robert Langdon (and the violence is less extreme).

The McGuffin is well used and well explained in the story. It is explained again, unnecessarily, in an addendum to the story. The standard (presumably) chess notation used in both renditions did not format readably on a Kindle using the file I was working from.

** Review originally prepared for ‘Big Al & Pals’.
Received a complimentary review file **


Review of ‘Traitor’s Ring’ by Susan Stuckey

March 21, 2019

Traitor's Ring: Tales of Aldura by [Stuckey, Susan]Genre: Sword and Sorcery

Description: Lady Kari Farley has been widowed in the war with the Halurdow and faces a bleak, penniless future. In the nick of time her former lover offers her a future of riches and independence in return for helping enemy invaders identify and capture a Guardian of her own people — someone who wields the magic of the Twin Gods. Convincing herself that a peaceful capture with her help is the best that can be hoped for, and looking forward to a life of ease and plenty, Kari accepts. But can the Halurdow and her old lover be trusted?

Author: Susan Stuckey says of herself (on Facebook) “[I am a] wife, mother, sister, daughter, caretaker of multiple dogs, cats and ferrets … sometimes writer always a reader. One of these days I will advance into the modern age and convert some of my pictures to digital and have a real “me” for an avatar.” In the meantime her online avatar is a delightful shaggy dog with a quizzical expression.

Appraisal: Traitor’s Ring, published in July 2018, is around the 20th book in Ms Stuckey’s ‘Aldura’ series, others of which have been reviewed here.

Don’t worry if you haven’t read any of the others. Neither have I. The book stands alone well. And if you often pass on fantasy novels because the saga seems to go on forever, be reassured that this adventure is completed in a modest 142 pages.

When we first meet Lady Kari Farley there is a lot of ‘woe is me’ about her. She has been brought up to believe that wealth and position are the only important things in life and has lost both, so she’s in a pretty grumpy place and is hard to warm to. However, as soon as she sets out on her mission to Furster’s Farm she begins to question her life to date and develop as a person. Stuckey keeps the focus on Kari’s mission and the story quickly picks up pace. (I read the final 40% of the book in one go.) The Halurdow invaders are satisfyingly sinister: the invaded Kalieri are much more fey, with a pleasing line in wolf protectors. Jeopardy is plentiful. The ending is satisfying, yet leaves room for a further adventure to take off. If you enjoy this book, there are a further 19 set in the same world to entertain you.

** This review was originally prepared for Big Al & Pals, for which I received a complimentary file copy of the book. **

Review of ‘The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker’ by Bobbie Darbyshire (2019, Sandstone Press)

March 19, 2019

The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whitaker by [Darbyshire, Bobbie]A new novel from Bobbie Darbyshire is an event to celebrate. Here one is. Huzzah!

I have seen her new novel described as ‘quirky’. As she has created her own version of the afterlife I wouldn’t argue with that epithet. When we first meet Sir Harry Whittaker, inheritor of Olivier’s mantle, he is already dead – albeit recently. Subsequently it is agreed by all those dealing with his estate that he was not a very nice man. With all this against him how is Darbyshire going to make a satisfactory protagonist out of him? But this is, as it were, a crossover novel as there are vibrant living characters in this drama as well as the dead one. All have their flaws; also pathos and redeeming qualities. These living characters are all affected by Sir Harry’s Last Will and Testament.

The story reminded me of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, in which the ‘rude mechanicals’, the fairy folk, and the love-sick nobles flit about a magical wood looking for their hearts’ desires and ways to achieve them. For ‘magical wood’ read ‘Brighton’ (dear Brighton, so warmly drawn!). As with MND, there is a nexus towards which all the characters are drawn. The nexus is dead Harry Whittaker, his Will, his cat and his portrait. The various characters bump into each other quite logically, if apparently out of the blue – again as in MND – and are forever changed. The magic of Darbyshire’s world draws in just the right characters and gives them exactly what they need.

The substantial cast of characters are beautifully realised. They demonstrate that trying to define ‘normal’ is a fool’s game and that nobody is ever average. There is pink hair. There is a pack rat. There is a port wine stain. There is a solicitor. The reader is guided accurately through the activities of this ever-increasing cast as they swirl through the pages of the book. One wonders how so much can possibly be brought to a conclusion. But order is brought out of chaos, as Darbyshire shows us precisely each character’s place in her schema.

One doesn’t come across magic realism that often in British writing. Angela Carter is the author who springs immediately to mind when searching for a work comparable with this. Darbyshire is a kinder writer than Carter, but with this novel is definitely operating in a similar milieu.

This is a lovely book about the possibility of becoming a better person than you ever thought you could be.



Review of ‘Incognito’ by Khaled Talib

March 13, 2019

Incognito by [Talib, Khaled]Review originally prepared for ‘Big Al & Pals. Received a complimentary review copy.

Genre: thriller

Description: Here is some of what is posted on Amazon about this book: “Pope Gregoire XVII was last seen waving to the crowd at Saint Peter’s square from the famous Apostolic Palace window. Despite several layers of tight security, neither the Gendarmerie nor The Entity (the Vatican’s secret service) or the Swiss Guards claimed to know anything about his sudden mysterious disappearance… Ayden Tanner, a former British SAS commando officer — who is officially dead — is dispatched with two other crew members to find the Supreme Pontiff by The League of Invisible Knights, a covert division of Anonymous that aims to bring about the triumph of good over evil.” Great premise! (BTW: other readers may be puzzled, as I was, by references to the ‘Gendarmerie’. This is the Vatican’s police force.)

Author: Khaled Talib has worked in journalism and in public relations. He has written three novels since 2014 – SMOKESCREEN, INCOGNITO and GUN KISS. He is a member of the Crime Writers Association and International Thriller Writers. He lives in Singapore.

Appraisal: The puffs for this book claim kinship with the likes of Dan Brown and Robert Harris. That’s a broad church. And a big claim. Talib knows (as all good writers need to) a little bit about a lot of things. I enjoyed much of the material about the Vatican, the information about Turkey and Egypt, and about recent European politics (although I was puzzled to find reference to Italian ‘lire’ since Italy has been using the Euro since 1999). There is a definite ‘Mission Impossible’ vibe, as well as a substantial nod to our old friends the Knights Templar.

This is, at bottom, a story about fake news. Very topical. The Prologue sets the scene beautifully. The prose in it is taut and lyrical. The necessary backstory is laid before the reader. Now the story can hit the ground running …

There is plenty of action in the book. Fights abound. It is a teeny spoiler to let on that our protagonist and his ‘crew’ are ambushed so many times that one begins to wonder just how good they are at what they do.

I found it peculiar that, despite all the action, no progress seemed to be made with finding the kidnapped Pope for the first third of the book.

I also found the swathes of description and backstory (what does Maria have to do with anything?) slowed pace and made it more difficult to follow the machinations of the large cast of characters as they whizzed about Europe from Geneva, to Rome, to Istanbul, to the Sinai Desert.

Approximate page count: 268 pp

Get it from AmazonUK here:

Or from AmazonUS here:


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